To express that hearing loss is common is somewhat of an understatement. In the US, 48 million people describe some amount of hearing loss. Which means, on average, for every five people you meet, one will have hearing loss. And at the age of 65, it’s one out of three.
With odds like this, how can you escape becoming one of those five?
To help you understand how to conserve healthier hearing throughout your life, we’ll take a closer look at the causes and types of hearing loss in this week’s blog post.
How Normal Hearing Works
Hearing loss is the interruption of normal hearing, so a good place to start is with an understanding of how normal hearing is supposed to work.
You can picture normal hearing as consisting of three primary processes:
- The physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves. Sound waves are produced in the environment and propel through the air, like ripples in a lake, ultimately making their way to the external ear, through the ear canal, and ultimately hitting the eardrum. The vibrations from the eardrum are subsequently transmitted to the middle ear bones, which then activate the tiny nerve cells of the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ of the inner ear.
- The electrical conduction from the inner ear to the brain. The cochlea, once activated, converts the vibrations into electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain via the auditory nerve.
- The perception of sound in the brain. The brain perceives the electrochemical signal as sound.
What’s fascinating is that what we perceive as sound is nothing more than sound waves, oscillations, electric current, and chemical reactions. It’s a wholly physical process that leads to the emergence of perception.
The Three Ways Normal Hearing Can Go Wrong
There are three main types of hearing loss, each interfering with some element of the normal hearing process:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of conductive and sensorineural)
Let’s take a look at the first two, including the causes and treatment of each.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss disrupts the physical and mechanical conduction of sound waves to the inner ear and cochlea. This is brought on by anything that hinders conduction.
Examples include malformations of the outer ear, foreign objects inside of the ear canal, fluid from ear infections, pierced eardrums, impacted earwax, and benign tumors, among other causes.
Treatment of conductive hearing loss includes the removal of the obstruction, dealing with the infection, or surgical correction of the malformation of the outer ear, the eardrum, or the middle ear bones.
If you suffer from conductive hearing loss, for instance from impacted earwax, you could possibly begin hearing better instantly following a professional cleaning. With the exclusion of the more serious kinds of conductive hearing loss, this form can be the simplest to treat and can restore normal hearing completely.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
Sensorineural hearing loss disrupts the electrical conduction of sound from the cochlea to the brain. This is due to the damage to either the nerve cells within the cochlea or to the auditory nerve itself.
With sensorineural hearing loss, the brain is provided with compromised electrical signals, reducing the volume and quality of sound.
The principal causes of sensorineural hearing loss are:
- Genetic syndromes or fetal infections
- Regular aging (presbycusis)
- Infections and traumatic injuries
- Meniere’s disease
- Cancerous growths of the inner ear
- Side effects of medication
- Abrupt exposure to extremely loud sounds
- Long-term subjection to loud sounds
Sensorineural hearing loss is most frequently associated with exposure to loud sounds, and so can be prevented by keeping away from those sounds or by defending your hearing with earplugs.
This type of hearing loss is a bit more difficult to treat. There are no present surgical or medical procedures to heal the nerve cells of the inner ear. However, hearing aids and cochlear implants are extremely effective at taking on the amplification responsibilities of the nerve cells, leading to the perception of louder, crisper sound.
The third type of hearing loss, mixed hearing loss, is simply some combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, and is treated accordingly.
If you have any difficulty hearing, or if you have any ear pain or dizziness, it’s best to talk to your physician or hearing professional as soon as possible. In virtually every case of hearing loss, you’ll attain the best results the sooner you deal with the underlying problem.